I think about a world to come where the books were found by the golden ones, written in pain, written in awe by a puzzled man who questioned, "What are we here for?" All the strangers came today and it looks as though they're here to stay.

-David Bowie "Oh! You Pretty Things"

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Serious Sci Fi: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is the fourth installation of film adaptations of he original 1966 television show Star Trek. In this film, James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew travel back in time to save two humpback whales in a sort of "save the whales, save the universe" plot. (Are lame Heroes jokes still vogue?) The crew must split up in order to abduct, store and transport the two whales efficiently, or else...

Many of you have difficulty suspending disbelief long enough to believe that one can time travel (accurately) by using a space vessel to "slingshot" around the sun. Perhaps, due to the fact that my dad raised us on Star Trek, it's easier for me to deal with this uncritically. Perhaps I fear the consequences of closing minds to, as Mulder would say, "extreme possibilities." I do have a problem with Star Trek IV, however. If you guessed that it involves Mr. Spock mind-melding with a whale then you've guessed wrong. My problem has to do with the actions of Scotty in the above divide and conquer situation, or what I call the Montgomery Scott Paradox.

Mr. Scott's job, in preparation for saving the whales, is to acquire panels of ultra-thick acrylic glass which will be used to construct water tanks in the ship's cargo bay strong enough to transport two humpback whales and tons of water. Since Mr. Scott does not have enough money - 23rd-century economics is apparently drastically different from 20th century economics - he gives Dr. Nichols of Plexicorp the chemical formula for transparent aluminum in exchange for several sheets of plexiglass. Dr. Leonard McCoy, always concerned with the ethical implications of peoples' actions, censures Mr. Scott for giving Nichols the formula and potentially changing the future with possibly dire consequences. Mr. Scott brushes off the accusation humorously, responding, "How do you know he didn't invent the thing?" According to the novelization of the film, Dr. Nichols did, in fact, invent transparent aluminum.

The Montgomery Scott Paradox is better known as the predestination paradox. (Apparently people talked about this paradox prior to Star Trek IV. All I know is that I sure as heck didn't...) If Montgomery Scott's knowledge ultimately originates in the knowledge of Dr. Nichols, and the knowledge of Dr. Nichols originally comes from Montgomery Scott (as depicted in the film), then the result is an infinite loop in which the knowledge doesn't have any true origin. There is no original idea, no inception, only the transmission of an idea that technically should not exist. Assuming that only one timeline / dimension / reality exists (which we technically can't do after the events of J.J. Abrams's Star Trek), this exchange of knowledge without origin cannot happen.

The only way out, according to my imagination, is through multiverse theory, though the intermingling of tangent universes and the propagation of knowledge across dimensions. Even with the help of multiverse theory, however, I have trouble coming up with a concise account of how one can solve this paradox. The Montgomery Scott paradox from Star Trek IV remains, to this interpreter at least, a serious difficulty.

(If anyone can provide an acocunt of how to resolve this paradox, please feel free to make me look like a fool. I would love to learn from your science / sci-fi expertise.)


  1. It is actually quite simple. As we know due to J.J.'s Star Trek, as well as episodes of the original Star Trek such as Mirror, Mirror, the multiverse theory of time-travel is at work in the Star Trek universe. Therefore, the 1984 that our heroes traveled back to is not the 1984 in their own history (where Dr. Nichols invented transparent aluminum all on his own, or at least without the help of one Montgomery Scott). Therefore, in this 1984, which is now moving off towards a separate future due to the involvement of our heroes, Dr. Nichols is able to invent transparent aluminum thanks to information from a separate reality, where it was invented independently of any time travel whatsoever.

  2. So, the idea is that Dr. Nichols invents it in both universes. All things remaining the same, he just invents it earlier in the tangent 1984 due to Montgomery Scott's "intrusion" into that verse. Is that what I'm hearing?

  3. Yes, and admittedly under different circumstances, but the problem of it not really originating anywhere due to Scotty getting it from Nichols who got it from Scotty and so on and so forth doesn't actually exist, because in the original, undisturbed timeline, Nichols (and his scientific team and scientific fore-bearers, no real discoveries happen completely independently) discovers it without any paradoxical interference.

  4. Agreed. But only with multiverse theory. New question: When they change things in the tangent 1982, is the world they come back to a tangent 1982? If so, then it's not the place they originally came from, which means that the world should have spawned its own version of our favorite Star Trek characters. If not, then how is it possible for the whales to save the original universe when Mr. Scott's actions either create or take place in a tangent universe?

  5. Okay. This is where it gets a little complicated. The universe they return to is the original, unchanged universe. This takes a little bit of suspension of disbelief, but we are already buying that one can travel back in time by sling-shotting around the sun (which for a series that for the most part is pretty good on the science is really a little ridiculous). The idea, and we can probably borrow from LOST here, is that the universe tries to course-correct. So when returning to the present, they return to the present that they left and not the new present that would have been created by the alternate timeline they created by messing with the past.

    Unlike in the Back to the Future films, returning to a newly created present wouldn't mean that everything is slightly different because of the changes you made in the past, but would, as you rightly pointed out, mean that there would be an alternate you there that had organically grown from the alternate universe, one who had not traveled back in time the way that you did.

    However, if you subscribe to this LOSTian theory of Universe Course-Correction, then it is possible that the Universe put the time travelers (in this case Kirk and crew) back in the correct universe, being the one that they had departed from.

    As for the whales, they are identical in every way to the whales from the original universe, since at the time just prior to the arrival of our heroes, the 1986 universe (and I looked it up, it wasn't 82 or 84, but 86) was identical to the 1986 of the original universe. The change occurred when Kirk and crew arrived. That created the tangent universe. Therefore, there is no difference between whales from an alternate timeline and whales from the original timeline, the point being that either would have satisfied the probe.

  6. All right. Here's the Source Code question: If they robbed the whales from the tangent universe is it possible that they doomed the tangent universe in the process? Our universe was threatened because of the extinction of the whales, and now their universe starts with two fewer whales, which certainly doesn't help them to repopulate the world. Does a time traveler have the right to create and doom a universe in order to protect his/her universe?

  7. It's possible, although it is also possible that due to their actions and serious love for these two whales, coupled with the disappearance of noted whale lover Dr. Taylor forces the powers at be to look seriously at the problem of possible extinction and curb the killing of whales resulting in the fact that whales never die out in that newly created time-line.

    However, you have struck at the core ethical question involving multi-verse time travel, Does a time traveler have the right to create and change another universe even if they do so to protect or save their own?

    There is no answer, easy or otherwise, for that.